Facts need wider acceptance

Have you ever introduced a group of people to information new to them and found your audience going to sleep on you? I’ve noticed that when introducing people to facts which challenge their assumptions about “how things work”, or simply an overabundance of data which is completely outside of what they’ve been accustomed to experience or think about, they my audience may nod right off to sleep on me.

Important scientific studies are apparently identifying some of the reasons that our minds reject facts that are incompatible with our beliefs and experiences, or are so new we haven’t yet figured out what to do with them.

Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote. . . .

The last five decades of political science have definitively established that most modern-day Americans lack even a basic understanding of how their country works. In 1996, Princeton University’s Larry M. Bartels argued, “the political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best documented data in political science.”

On its own, this might not be a problem: People ignorant of the facts could simply choose not to vote. But instead, it appears that misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions.

This is a serious shortcoming, and one that members of a democratic society should work to understand and help each other to overcome. In religious matters it’s a great asset to have strong faith and believe in our Creator. But worldly matters are on an entirely different level. In the world of men, identification and presentation of facts may determine who we are as a people, which issues we give our attention to, who and what we support, which of us will prosper, which of us will struggle – or even die. There’s a lot riding on us grasping what the real facts are, so we should work hard to overcome any biological reluctance we have to understanding what they are.

Jump to full Boston Globe article.

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